A little off my usual subject matter, but very much related, because I think learning music gives us access to feelings, understandings and skills that are powerful beyond measure.
Following is an excerpt from ‘Eden’, by Tim Smit, the extraordinary story of the Eden project. Tim is a musician, and also the founder of the Project:
“I have a fantasy that I entertain regularly. It started as a game but has begun to take on a life of its own; I have shared it with people from all walks of life, from government ministers to my mates in the pub.
One night there is a bang in my orchard. My dog Wilbur and I go down to investigate – he goes first, because he’s either braver or more stupid than I am. There, in the tangled mess of what was my old apple tree, is a spacecraft. Inside is a humanoid of my own age, and it is hurt. Just like in the movies I have the choice of calling the authorities or bravely trusting my hospitable instincts. I choose the latter and soon have it ensconced in my spare bedroom … It has a contraption like a stethoscope, one end of which it fastens to its chest and the other to mine.
Amazingly, we can now communicate. It tells me where it has come from and what life is like where it lives. I reciprocate as best I can – it is hard enough representing my country, let along my species. I am struck by its confusion when I am unable to answer the simplest of questions, such as what makes us all happy and what are the values we all share. Then things get really tricky. My alien is completely nonplussed to find that I cannot tell it what my species does to ensure universal happiness, indeed that a concept of such fundamental importance as happiness cannot be described. That we can live in the knowledge that we are not happy and yet we don’t do anything about it, it finds completely incomprehensible.
We talk of education, my alien and I. It is amazed by what I don’t know, when I call myself knowledgeable. Feeling more and more uncomfortable, I realise that I am a jigsaw with half the bits missing; I achieve ridiculous levels of detail in certain, generally useless areas, with large gaps in between. It had never struck me before that remembering bits of English and European history, being moderately well read, knowing something about how we conduct ourselves in business and politics, enjoying the music of Beethoven and Led Zeppelin and being able to scuba-dive, drive a car, cook a basic meal and so on is not at all the same thing as understanding the world. Where are the foundations common to all?
My alien friend, much restored … repairs its craft. On the eve of its departure it gives me a present. It is a machine to create a pill that can be infinitely replicated but never changed. It is a pill of Knowing and Understanding. I am charged with selecting the ingredients, the knowledge or developed senses, free from cultural bias, that will make up this gift to the people of the world. My alien leaves, never to return, and I’m stuck with this machine and an extraordinary challenge: what should the ingredients be?
To my horror, I realise that I have skated over life; I myself possess hardly any of the knowledge or understanding that I am now coming to think of as crucial for all people to share. I realise – and I share this reaction wtih the others with whom I have discussed it – that I have never addressed the issue of what should be the purpose or substance of an education system. We have merely grazed on information, as a commodity, in the hope of acquiring the skills we need for life. I don’t mean to be prescriptive; on the contrary, the debate opens education to the widest possible audience. It asks uncomfortable questions about the nature of happiness and the human condition Is it more important to know the dates of Ethelred the Unready, do trigonometry, deconstruct Shakespeare’s sonnets and be able to speak French than, for instance, to understand the frontiers of your mind and body?
The challenge I would like to set is this. If we were starting from scratch and we did have this fabulous machine, what ingredients would we put in? If they are fundamentally different from what we now teach, should we review the system? I have come up with only three things so far but they are huge.
The first I have called ‘balance’, which is code for all that knowledge that allows people to understand that they live on a small, fragile planet in orbit around the sun, with its own moon, and then gives us an understanding of the seasons and the natural forces that shape the way we live, and that in turn enable us to respect our place in nature.
The second, ‘function’, involves a real understanding of the mechanics and potential of all aspects of the human body and mind.
The third, ’empathy’, would be the ability to imagine yourself in other people’s shoes and to sympathise with their position.
This is where it all gets a bit woolly. Why is it that almost all young children can dance and sing and have a sense of rhythm, yet lose it in shyness and stiffness as they grow older? … How can we rediscover this joyous liberation? We should learn to think in an unconstrained way; quite how I haven’t a clue. Neither am I close to understanding what heading the comfort of belonging goes under, but we all need that sense of community.
Another of my heroes, Primo Levi, writes brilliantly about the qualities shared by survivors of Auschwitz. Survival did not appear to depend on any particular physical characteristic. It dawned on him that the survivors all shared one thing, an unquenchable sense of hope. Even in the face of the most terrible circumstances the flame did not go out; it was the fire that gave them the will to live. How do you put hope in a pill, or even give hope? I am convinced that the alien in my orchard has something crucial to add when we explore our priorities for the future. To ask such questions, and to interpret the responses, lies right at the core of what Eden should be about. What we are talking about here, it occurs to me, is a twenty-first-century Tree of Knowledge – highly appropriate in the circumstances, since in our garden we are once more faced with a choice.
From ‘Eden’ by Tim Smit, published by Transworld.